The European Space Agency awarded a $491 million contract to Airbus on October 14 for the development of the agency’s Mars Sample Return Orbiter. The orbiter is a key element of NASA’s Mars Sample Return mission and is expected to be launched aboard an Ariane 6 in 2026.
The Airbus Sample Return Orbiter weighs six tons and stands six meters high. It is equipped with a pair of solar arrays with a span of over 40 meters and a surface area of 144 square meters, some of the largest ever built.
In order to allow for efficient cruising while offering enough power to achieve orbital insertion, the Sample Return Orbiter will be equipped with hybrid propulsion. The system utilizes electrical propulsion for the cruise and spiral down phases of the flight and chemical propulsion for Mars orbital insertion.
Once in orbit around Mars, the Sample Return Orbiter will provide communications coverage for the NASA Perseverance Rover and Sample Retrieval Lander, two key elements of the agency’s Sample Return mission
NASA’s Mars Sample Return mission aims to retrieve samples from the surface of the Red Planet and return them to Earth for analysis. To do this, the agency had designed one of the most ambitious robotic missions in its nearly 60-year history.
The Sample Return Mission began with the launch of NASA’s Perseverance rover in July 2020. The rover is expected to touch down on the surface of Mars in February 2021.
Once on the surface of Mars, Perseverance will begin to collect a series of samples which it will seal inside sample tubes. The rover will then leave the samples behind on the surface of Mars before continuing with its mission.
In 2026, the NASA-developed Sample Retrieval Lander will be launched carrying the ESA-developed Sample Fetch Rover, which is also being developed by Airbus. The pair are expected to then touch down on the Martian surface in 2028.
The Sample Fetch Rover will then retrieve the samples left behind by Perseverance utilising a robotic arm developed by Italian aerospace and defence firm, Leonardo. The rover will then return the samples to the lander where they will be loaded aboard by a second Leonardo-developed robotic arm.
The next phase of the mission will see the sample launched into orbit around the Red Planet aboard the Mars Ascent Vehicle, a small rocket that will be launched with the Sample Retrieval Lander.
Once in orbit, the basketball-sized Orbiting Sample will be captured by the Airbus-built Sample Return Orbiter and loaded into the Earth Entry Vehicle. The Sample Return Orbiter will then return to Earth and deploy the Entry Vehicle for a touchdown at a predefined location.